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Calif. wildfire jumps aqueduct, threatens 2,300 buildings

Firefighters were battling a huge wildfire in the high desert wilderness north of Los Angeles Saturday, after it jumped an aqueduct and rushed toward hundreds of houses.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firefighters were battling a huge wildfire in the high desert wilderness north of Los Angeles Saturday, after it jumped an aqueduct and rushed toward hundreds of houses.

About 2,300 structures were threatened and there was also concern for power lines that bring electricity to Southern California.

While house evacuation orders were lifted Friday, residents of about 500 homes in Rancho Vista were told to "shelter in place" until further notice so that roads remain clear for the movement of fire equipment, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said.

Two giant airtankers swooped into the Antelope Valley to drop red flame retardant around the perimeter, while helicopters hovered over the aqueduct to suck up water and release it quickly on top of the smoldering hotspots.

"They make a big difference but it's a coordinated aggressive attack with firefighters laying hose, doing structure protection and perimeter control," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers.

"It's a tough situation but we're steadily taking chunks out of this fire, protecting the infrastructure — power lines, roads and the like," he added.

Stowers said 1,700 personnel worked in high heat to outflank the blaze and build containment lines around 20 percent of the fire.

"We are deploying everything that we've got," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the fire command post Friday.

Fire officials expect low humidity and high temperatures again Saturday with winds gusts of up to 50 mph in the foothills in the evening.

One house and three mobile home residences were destroyed, another house had roof damage and various other outbuildings and garages were lost in the horse country region, authorities said.

Most of the homes closer to Palmdale, however, are of recent construction with fire resistant roofs, stucco walls, boxed eaves and landscaped with fire-resistant vegetation, fire officials said.

'Really scary'
Destiny Brown, 19, stood beside her family's tan Ford Taurus waiting for her mother and sisters to finish packing so they could leave their home in a smoke-clogged Delta Ridge subdivision on the outskirts of Palmdale.

"I never thought it would happen. I only thought it's on TV. It's really scary," the 19-year-old said of the flames that burned just out of sight.

When their home filled with smoke, the family decided it was time to go. Brown said she was especially concerned about her 10-month-old brother who has asthma.

In the adjacent Amber Ridge subdivision, Barbara Murphy, 62, said she decided to stay put even though she and other residents in the development had lost power.

She said she felt secure in the center of the subdivision and had come through several fires unscathed during her decades living in the Antelope Valley.

"I've lived here for 43 years and I've never left the scene of a fire," she said.

Maria Norton, 19, expected to be home Friday evening preparing for Saturday's Miss Antelope Valley pageant.

Instead, this year's Miss Leona Valley is in a motel, worrying about the health of her horse, Sally, after fire destroyed her family's stable.

"It's kind of all a big nightmare," Norton said.

The college sophomore packed her purple pageant dress and fled her family's home in a sparsely populated area Thursday after freeing Sally just before flames engulfed the barn.

Sheriff's deputies urged the family to flee before Sally could be loaded into a trailer and hauled away to safety.

Overnight, Norton learned that animal rescuers had taken Sally to local fairgrounds where large animals were being sheltered during the fire.

When Norton went to visit Sally on Friday afternoon, the horse wasn't doing well.

"She's very sluggish. Not upbeat," she said. "It's taking a toll on her."

Workers probed
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Bryant said an investigation into the cause of the fire is centering on workers who were hammering on some bolts to remove a tire rim. The workers were cooperating with the investigation. The blaze spread rapidly after breaking out at midafternoon Thursday.

Southern California Edison said Friday the fire was threatening five high-voltage transmission lines, but the California grid operator had put additional generation resources online and customers were not expected to be affected if the utility lost those lines.

Only 21 SCE customers in the fire area were without power.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power asked its customers to reduce electrical usage until the threat eased, but added that it had begun local generation and its system was functioning normally.

Elsewhere, good weather in neighboring Kern County helped firefighters build containment lines around two wildfires that destroyed homes in remote mountain communities earlier in the week.

To the north, a fire that destroyed eight residences and a few outbuildings as it spread across about 26 square miles of the Sequoia National Forest in the Sierra Nevada was 55 percent contained, authorities said.